The Worst and Most Dangerous Attack: Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry

Since I began as the Project Archivist at the Burke Library in August 2011, I have heard about various collections deemed “controversial.” Many of the collections I process have not seen the light of day for a decade or more due to the water damage suffered as well as general library backlog. Some of the so-called “controversial collections” made perfect sense to me, such as the Near East Relief Committee Records. Another collection that was always shaded in this light was MRL12: Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry (LFMI) Records.

I stayed away from this collection for a while, hesitant to take it on. It was in poor condition with many of the papers fragile and brittle. How would I make LFMI available in this state? It was also one of the larger collections in MRL, donated by the Inquiry itself. Would I have to make preservation photocopies of everything onto acid-free paper? How many supplies would I need?!

It was also unclear to me why exactly it was controversial, although the Burke Library Archivist, Ruth Tonkiss Cameron, had discussed this collection with me at various times. Was it because there were rare documents and photographs that depicted something to which the world wasn’t aware? Topics of war, genocide, something else? I honestly did not have a clue. I would ultimately realize that it was the Inquiry itself and their subsequent findings that caused the controversy.

Taming the Beast

Fast-forward to this year. I have been able to work with many wonderful students during my time thus far at the Burke Library Archives. Kristen Leigh Southworth, a master’s student at Union Theological Seminary, is one such student. Kristen has assisted me with many large archival projects such as the Emory Ross Papers and the Foreign Missions Conference of North America Records, and I know I can depend on and trust the work she produces. I had discussed LFMI with Kristen off and on for some time, and I knew I wanted her help on it.

Throughout my two years at the Burke Library Archives I have gained considerable knowledge on missionaries and missionary organizations; as a result I feel very comfortable taking on larger, complex collections. With that in mind, I was ready for LFMI. To tackle it, I went back to the Luce Project proposal which was presented to the Luce Foundation in September 2010. It states:

This project will process the collection [MRL] so that they are organized and described, with basic preservation treatment through stabilization in acid-free containers, ordered arrangement, and removal of corrosive metals and other materials. This arrangement of the materials will enable more advanced preservation treatment, including encapsulation of photographs, production of acid-free surrogate copies, and selective digitized copies.

The elusive answer had been in front of me the entire time. I did not have to make preservation photocopies of the fragile newsprint at this stage of the project. I would place the newsprint and other papers into acid-free containers, arranging the records for use with the idea that in the future more in-depth processing and preservation could be implemented. I would be following what is known in the library sphere as the “More Product, Less Process” method.

I instantly felt raring to go on this collection. Ruth provided me with various documents relating to the collection, such as a legacy finding aid and processing notes. The collection had been housed in acid-free records cartons and some (not all) of the folders had been replaced with acid-free folders. Kristen was in charge of the bulk of the physical work changing out the old folders for new acid-free ones, and integrating approximately 6 feet of material that had come from the unprocessed records.

The collection grew to a total of 31.25 linear feet: 30 records cartons and 3 manuscript boxes. The legacy finding aid indicated that many of the materials were restricted due to fragility and preservation concerns. While it is true that the entire collection is fragile, that case could also be made for the entirety of the WAB and MRL record groups. Upon closer inspection many of the documents were carbon copies or on onion skin paper – thin and fragile, yes, but not necessarily disintegrating into the ether.

As Kristen was replacing the folders she was able to individually evaluate the three series. She was also able to see that the collection did not need to be so restricted. Instead, we changed the wording to [FRAGILE] instead of [RESTRICTED]. This will allow Burke Library staff to know that extra care would be required for the collection, but it would still be 100% available for use. I want to ensure these collections can be studied and used, not stored forevermore in a temperature and humidity controlled environment never to be touched again. The [FRAGILE] indications allow for usage to commence and continue.

Controversy Unveiled

I also now finally understand why this collection was considered so controversial, and after working with missionary and ecumenical materials for two years, I agree!

Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry formed in 1930 in order to conduct a thorough investigation of foreign missions in Asia. Missionary Boards were aware of the Inquiry and cooperated as needed, but the Inquiry was independent of the Missionary Boards themselves. The Inquiry consisted of two stages. The first began in late 1930, when twenty-seven “Fact-Finders” were sent to India, China, and Japan by the Institute of Social and Religious Research to collect data on missionary work and local conditions. Specialized research teams compiled extensive background information on missionary work in each of the countries before sending the Fact-Finders to spend five months in India, six months in Japan, and six and a half months in China.

The second stage began in September 1931 with a “Commission of Appraisal.” The Commission of Appraisal consisted of fifteen laymen, laywomen, and ministers who spent nine months visiting the fields of the Inquiry. The Commission of Appraisal then combined their own observations with the preliminary reports of the Fact-Finders to compile a final Report of the Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry. This Report was formally presented to the Mission Boards of the seven denominations on November 18-19, 1932 in New York City.

The Report was considered to be “the most searching and exhaustive accumulation of missionary data ever undertaken.” It offered a bold critique of the entire missionary enterprise, highlighting major inadequacies in both the theology and the practices of the Missionary Boards and individual missionaries. Its criticisms of the Boards were particularly scathing, stating that “the trail of self-interest within the organization lies like the trail of a serpent over the mission of Asia,” and that the Commission could see “no ground for a renewed appeal for the support, much less for the enlargement, of these missions in their present form and on their present basis.”

Public controversy surrounding the Report was considerable, with many repudiating the whole volume as “the worst and most dangerous attack ever made” on foreign missions. However, in spite of the controversy and public outcry, the Inquiry was still considered by many to be the most notable and challenging statement regarding mission work since the Jerusalem Council in 1928. The majority of the Mission Boards welcomed it as a worthwhile endeavor, accepting most of the practical recommendations contained in the Report. Copies were sent to most mission stations by their boards, and missionaries were urged to give it their careful consideration. The Methodist boards even commended the Inquiry for being “in full accord with the temper of youth today,” which they believed would “give new meaning and effect to the Christian message as it is presented to this disturbed and distracted modern world.”

Final Thoughts

It finally makes sense to me why the collection was and still is controversial, and I look forward to entering my third and final year of the Luce Project having made it available. Missionary work still continues and it would be interesting to compare the findings of the Report to mission work today. Are the findings still current? Did individuals and boards truly accept and implement the recommendations put forth by the Inquiry? I look forward to new scholarship which will certainly come out of this intriguing collection.

Laymen’s also reinforced for me the reason for the project: Making records available that previously were not. Any processing and preservation through acid-free containers is better than their current, inaccessible state. August 2013 is the beginning of the third and final year of the project, and LFMI allowed me to refocus and hone my priorities. I am now processing the Missionary Research Library Administrative Records, another large and interesting collection. I anticipate the discovery of many new and fascinating records, not only in MRL Admin, but through the rest of the unprocessed material left to sort.

All I can say is, stay tuned…

The finding aid for MRL12: Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry, 1879-1940, is available online.



From the materials in the collection, and:

Baker, Archibald G., “Reactions to the ‘Laymen's Report’,” The Journal of Religion , Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct., 1933): University of Chicago Press, pp. 379-398.

Hocking, William E. & the Commission of Appraisal, Re-thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years, New York: Harper & Bros., 1932.

Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry, Report of the Commission of Appraisal of the Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry, 1932.

Speer, Robert E., “Re-Thinking Missions” Examined, New York: Fleming Revell Co., 1934.

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